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Jerry Manuel believes the HBCU Swingman Classic can reinvigorate Black interest in baseball

For all the focus on bringing more Black players into the game, what’s equally important is bringing Black fans back

SEATTLE — When Jerry Manuel was a high school senior in Rancho Cordova, California, he was called to the principal’s office at Cordova High School. Manuel said that when he arrived the principal told him that he had been drafted.

The year was 1972 and the war in Vietnam was still raging. “I said, ‘Aw, man, I ain’t going to no Army,’ “Manuel said Saturday over breakfast.

Turns out that Manuel was drafted not by the U.S. Army but by the Detroit Tigers, who made the 17-year-old Manuel a first-round draft pick. That began a journey in baseball that continued last week in Seattle when he managed a team of players from historically Black colleges and universities.

The evening before we met, Manuel watched his team of HBCU all-stars pull out a 4-3 victory in the inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic on July 7. Sponsored by the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation, the Swingman Classic features players from HBCUs.

Friday’s game was the latest of several initiatives to increase the presence of Black players in the MLB. For Manuel, who managed the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets and held several other coaching positions, Friday’s event was a significant milestone in baseball’s diversity initiative.

Manuel has been involved in MLB’s youth development for more than a decade, working with high school players. The opportunity to work with talented players from HBCU baseball programs illustrated how important it was for players to be in a familiar nurturing environment, not unlike the HBCU environments from which they came.

Former Major League Baseball player and manager Jerry Manuel addresses the players before a workout the day before the HBCU Swingman Classic on July 6 in Seattle.

Caean Couto/AP Photo

In football and basketball, especially in the NFL and the NBA, Black players are the dominant presence on the field and in the locker room. This is not the case in baseball, where African American players are the glaring minority.

In the short time that he worked with the players in Seattle, Manuel said, he strove to create a comfortable, familiar space where players could be themselves and play freely on a huge stage in an all-star environment.

“I wanted to allow them the freedom to be themselves,” Manuel said. “When they get free you can see them dancing on the field. I like to see them dance.”

The result was a tight, well-played game decided by one run. And after the game, Manuel’s players danced.

Manuel, born in Hahira, Georgia, did not attend an HBCU, but his oldest son, fashion designer Jerry Lorenzo Manuel Jr. (Jerry Lorenzo), played baseball at Florida A&M. “He played on the last all-Black team at Florida A&M,” Manuel said. Like many HBCU baseball programs, the Florida A&M baseball team is predominantly white.

Manuel has two daughters and another son who coaches in the Cincinnati Reds organization. His oldest grandson is in the academy system of the MLS’ Philadelphia Union.

Manuel, 69, grew up in Black baseball culture. His father occasionally barnstormed with the Atlanta Black Crackers. He never saw his father play, but he remembers the excitement of the games. “All I remember is Sunday smelling that chicken and knowing the game was going on and people just going crazy,” he said.

For all the focus on bringing more Black players into the game, what’s equally important is bringing Black fans back to baseball. The HBCU universe may be a significant pipeline for that transformation. Friday’s HBCU classic in Seattle offered some insight into what that might look and feel like.

The game attracted what may have been the largest contingent of Black fans at a major league game in several decades, perhaps going back to the East-West All-Star games that showcased Negro Leagues baseball talent between 1933 and 1961.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Negro Leagues All-Star Game, held annually in Chicago, was the social event of the year in Black America. Baseball was once a staple in the Black community and the Negro Leagues All-Star Game was the primary must-attend event.

The Swingman Classic could become that type of event, a summertime HBCU homecoming.

Alabama State outfielder Randy Flores dances after the HBCU Swingman Classic at T-Mobile Park on July 7 in Seattle.

Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Fans dance in the seventh inning during the HBCU Swingman Classic at T-Mobile Park on July 7 in Seattle.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Many who did not attend HBCUs attend Black college homecomings for the camaraderie and community. The Swingman Classic could have the same attraction. At HBCUs, the action on the field is background music for reunions, fellowship, and celebration.

For Manuel, being around so many HBCU players in Seattle last week had a familiar feel. “It was like home to me,” he said.

In the next five years, Manuel said, he’d like to see the classic become one of the most popular and well-attended All-Star week events.

“One of the successes I’d like is that it will be attended and watched by more than other activities,” he said. Manuel recalled how the All-Star Futures Game, an annual exhibition game played during the All-Star weekend, has grown.

“The Futures game began with 8,000, now it draws 30,000. That’s the sort of progression I’d like to see,” Manuel said.

Next year’s MLB All-Star Game will be in Arlington, Texas. In 2025, the game may move to Atlanta, the epicenter of Black culture. Manuel hopes that by then, the popularity of the classic will be solidified, and the game will be close to sold-out. “We may have to change the date of the game,” he joked. “The All-Star Game on Monday but the HBCU game will be Tuesday night.

“I’m just trying to bring a better game because I think it can be so much better.”

The key is bringing back a Black audience that once was passionate about baseball.

The Swingman Classic could provide a way back into baseball for Black fans. “The biggest reason you can be better is because you’re lacking what the best came from,” Manuel said, referring to the Black community. “You’re lacking that in your product now.”

When Manuel was called into the principal’s office in 1972, he began what has become a fulfilling 50-year journey through baseball. His current mission is to bring not only Black players back to baseball, but bring a far-flung Black community back to the ballpark as well. “We watch basketball, and we watch football, but none of those brings us together like that HBCU all-star baseball game,” Manuel said.

He wants baseball, through the Swingman Classic, “to become a game that eventually brings a culture back to some of its roots.”

“Baseball could be the sport that reinvigorates the African American community,” he said. “We made some giant steps Friday night.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.